I thought it was time for a new pasta salad for summer not because I needed one but because Sylvie did. Sylvie’s graduating from high school, you see, and of course she’s having a graduation party. Since Sylvie, a stellar singer and dancer, has cooked and baked with me since she was a wee girl, I’m thrilled to work out something fun and luscious to go with her dad’s great pulled pork tacos and bring it along to fete one of my favorite students and people.
I’ve been baking this friendly cake for a few months now in one variation or another. First, I was just fascinated by the ingredients in the original Almond Cake recipe (see photo below), which belongs to Molly Wizenberg and was adapted by Mark Bittman and Sam Sifton…and later by me along with a few thousand others. It starts with boiling an orange and a lemon together for a half hour, removing the seeds, and puréeing the now softened peels. Nothing I’d ever done in my not-so-extensive cake baking career; still, I was sold. There’s no butter but there’s plenty of olive oil, making it taste and feel seriously Mediterranean or just Spanish… and keeping it moist for a few days right on the old proverbial counter. That’s even in Colorado at altitude where bread becomes crouton material in 15 minutes flat. The original “Tarta de Santiago” or St. James Cake (very similar to the almond cake I kept making) is a middle ages and Camino de Santiago specialty still baked each July 25, for the feast of St. James. One couldn’t have asked for a better plain cake or maybe even one with more spiritual flavor. Think gently citrusy and uber nutty pound cake only lighter. My dad, who abhorred all things frosting, would have inhaled it. Only thing my cake needed was a little barely sweetened whipped cream or a few berries, as you see in my photo. Or just a cup of coffee (black) if you were my dad. Maybe a small Armagnac if you were me.
Since the coronation of King Charles and the American Mother’s Day fall just over a week from one another, I couldn’t help but think of making scones in honor of both events. (Of course I watched the whole coronation…well, at least from the time I awoke. Enchanting it was – especially the choir.) There’s nothing like a basket of gorgeous scones to set off a festive brunch or holiday tea and they’re both easy to make (I promise!) and very fast, particularly if you use a food processor. The only big decision will be….What kind of scones will you make? Scroll down for ideas or if you’re quite serious, you can order the wondrous Scots baker and fiction writer, Sue Lawrence’s fine book, SCOTTISH BAKINGfor the real deal scoop. I had a basket of lovely fresh strawberries on hand and a small jar of toasted almonds leftover from a salad, so there was little question about what I’d do. I adore strawberries with chocolate, so I thought I’d toss in just a few mini chocolate chips to gild that lily and quite soon, Strawberry-Chocolate Chip Scones with Almonds were born. And, if I do say say so myself, they’re fabulous. I want them again.
A few weeks back, while doing my monthly Trader Joe’s run, I scored a package of fresh chicken Italian sausage. Upon returning home, I stuck it in the garage freezer and promptly forgot all about it. Ok; it’s my MO. Finding myself with most of a pot of polenta leftover from Friday night’s bœuf bourguignon dinner and wondering what to do with it (there are myriad uses–no worries), I remembered that sausage and easily pictured it with a simple tomato sauce along with a cascade of sautéed mushrooms. A little garlic, of course–but not a lot. How about some fresh asparagus, I thought? It is asparagus season, after all. (Here in Colorado Springs –and I know this because of a longtime faithful reader, thanks–, we have wild asparagus that should just about be coming on. Take a peek around.) While it did dirty a few pans (hello wonderful DACOR dishwasher– ours was made by Asko, the Swedish company–and is still running perfectly without mishap after 9 years/knock on wood), within 45 minutes we had an easy-scrumptious dinner on hand with which to watch a couple of episodes of Netflix’ addictive new series “Transatlantic.”
You don’t have to be ill to make chicken soup, but if by chance you are, this week’s Chicken-Vegetable Wild Rice Soup would certainly encourage healing or at least comfort until you were well once more. I’m grateful to be healthy currently (THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!! Hope you are, too.) and have not been in dire need of chicken soup for medicinal purposes. I was, however, looking for a veggie-heavy broth featuring whole grains or beans and lean poultry or fish to fortify us for playing pinochle. A pinochle lunch, so to speak. So what’s a pinochle lunch? It’s a simple, healthful meal we prepare to eat together before we play cards most of the afternoon. I mean, we need stamina, energy, and awareness — not stupor from food that sits like a box of rocks in our bellies. The four of us, and we meet once or twice per month, must have our wits about us as we are pinochle newbies and hence have trouble remembering things like a 10 is higher than a king. How could that be??Who made these rules?? There is also usually a little wine at this meal, you see. Great for digestion and singing a little ditty or two but questionable in its help for our memories, which are sorely needed for pinochle.
When good friends Patti and Jim came for dinner and to watch the movie “Chocolat” a couple of weeks ago, it was easy to choose a quintessential French do-ahead cold weather meal like Bœuf Bourguignon (aka Beef Burgundy or BB).The movie, a forever fave starring Juliette Binoche, Alfred Molina, Judy Dench, and Johnny Depp, is set in France and why not follow a great location theme for our menu? I had been wanting to make the fun Salmon Rillettes out of Dorie Greenspan’s AROUND MY FRENCH TABLE and so that was tidily in the bag (with Kir to drink), as was dessert. Patti, a much-in-demand local caterer and baker extraordinaire, decided to make Julia Child’s Queen of Sheba Cake ( Reine de Saba–a famous chocolate and almond confection) and who wouldn’t take her up on that… My stumbling block was a first course salad. I wanted green, green, green because “BB” is a hefty-heavy meal and there was chocolate cake, too, wasn’t there? I liked the idea of totally simple and fairly quick but stunning– a show stopper sitting on the table when they arrived sort of deal. (I don’t like to be too busy when friends come and I want them to see what’s ahead food wise.) Of course I didn’t want just a green salad. Tooling through the produce aisle trying to figure it out, what looked the very best to me were some skinny green beans also known as haricots verts, which while lovely on their own tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, lemon zest, and crushed red pepper needed a boost or larger venue for this special meal. I brought them home, cooked them until just past “crisp” and settled on lightly slathering them all in a two-vinegar, very very Dijony vinaigrette. Which was great. Fine. Totally.
Except, we couldn’t just eat green beans. Well, we could… but. So I dolled the whole shebang up with crisp mixed greens, bright white crunchy fennel, juicy cherry tomatoes, tender roasted red peppers, and creamy goat’s cheese. In other words, not so much that you couldn’t see what was there but just enough to show it all off. Thinking hard about balance — comes right after color– there was nothing to do but finish it off with yellow-yellow lemon zest for acid and capers for salinity. Right after I chose the best big round platter in the cupboard, you see. (24″ in diameter and made in Provence) And that’s how I got “Lemony Green Bean and Goat Cheese Salad.”
I’m not a big cake baker and certainly not much of a cake eater, but lately I find myself working on cakes. There are probably a few reasons but one is the number of impressive cakes posted on Dorie Greenspan’s engaging and active facebook group, BAKE AND TELL. Some of these folks bake their kids’ favorite chocolate birthday cake (more my speed) and others create pastry visions (think marzipan) unseen at many professional bakeries. Yikes. But it’s all fun and there’s lots of learning and togetherness– the internet at its best. Another thing going through my mind has been finding a cake my good friend Tony can eat and still stay on his healthy regime, which means no white flour, no dairy, and not much sugar. (I’m nearly there on that one; a pan of cake with his name on it is in the freezer for the next time we play Pinochle. We’ll see what he thinks.) This last Sunday, I woke early to drink coffee and exercise (I know–me?!) and saw a few cartons of sorta sad-lookin’ berries (Poor babies.) in the fridge when I got the milk. There was also a container of ricotta — couldn’t even remember what I’d needed that for, but it passed the sniff test. What could I make with berries and ricotta? Well, folks, that’s what Google’s for, isn’t it? Up came Ina Garten’s“Blueberry Ricotta Breakfast Cake.” Luckily I have the book it’s in (Go-To Dinners) and read it through twice thinking about how Alyce would make and bake this cake. And here’s what happened; I changed it as I went along…
Just for fun, I often ask people, “What’s your favorite meal?” It’s a conversation starter or a way to get to know someone better. We’re often identified by or known for the things we like best. As in, “I’m a chocoholic” or “I don’t drink coffee to wake up. I wake up to drink coffee.” I am no longer surprised to discover many people answer, “Burgers” or “Burgers and fries” because it’s happened so many times. (Pizza comes in a fast and close second.) You have to wonder why and I have. I think it’s because we are 1. a going-out-to-eat country and burgers are — in case you hadn’t noticed — everywhere in the fast food world. They’re even on top-shelf restaurant menus because you never know when someone goes out to a swank spot if they’ll still crave a big ol’ cheeseburger with ketchup and onions. In other words, we can eat these warm, tender sandwiches (hardly any chewing involved) out of hand–like small children– easily and quickly, maybe even cheaply. and 2. Burgers are synonymous with months of outdoor cooking, whether just for dinner or at parties, picnics, and celebrations. I like a good home-grilled burger a time or two in the summer but rarely order one out the rest of the year. Always watching my red meat intake and the calories associated with a restaurant burger are typically above my lunch limit. But give me a veggie burger of any sort or a fish burger anywhere at all and I’m a happy, happy puppy. Lent seems to give me the excuse to figure out a new fish or even seafood burger every year and this time, with crab calling my name from the fridge after making crab pizza last week, there was little question about what I was making.
During the pandemic lockdown, my husband Dave (aka best sous) took to making my homemade pizza recipe every other week. We only ate half and so froze the second half in order to enjoy a fake take-out meal or no cooking night the following week. Pizza, wondrous on the streets of Naples, delivered from our local spot, or made right in my own kitchen’s oven, is probably my favorite food. In other words, doesn’t take much to convince me to bake it in some new guise or getup. As I planned this year’s Friday Fish meals, I thought about pizza but also had crab on my mind. It was either crab pasta or crab pizza and, well, you see what won! The question was, “How did I want to do it?” A really fast version featuring purchased mini-naan flatbread sounded fun and doable for all of you, too. Homemade pizza dough isn’t everyone’s thing, though it’s easier than it looks. Takes time is all. The naan— which is also available in a larger size should you want it, usually has its own display at the grocer somewhere around the bakery area but is widely available. Instead of waiting an hour or two for dough to rise and then trying to shape it into a manageable round (square? rectangle?), these little flatbreads come ready to grill and bake. They fit in the toaster, too. Add a few toppings, some cheese, stick it in the oven, and you have pizza. Even if you chop toppings and grate cheese, dinner’s on the table in under 30 minutes as the pizzas bake only 6-8 minutes. Have kids? They can make their own pizza. Do make your salad first!
Do you know Donna Hay? Sort of the Ina Garten cum Martha Stewart of Australia? Longtime doyenne of beautiful and luscious down under recipes, best-selling author of 26 cookbooks, editor-in-chief of donna hay magazine with nearly 600,000 subscribers; she’s a cook and writer worthy of your attention.
A few days ago, a lovely Donna recipe, Super Green Stir Fry, flew across my fb feed. My eye was caught; my mouth nearly watered. It was SO green. It did have rice noodles, though….but no meat! Probably Meatless Monday, hm? I was going to make it. Just like that. Except I’d been dreaming about a fish stir fry for Friday Fish. But I hadn’t yet figured it out. Dave, the best sous husband said, “Don’t you mean shrimp??” “Nope,” I said. “I mean fish.” Why couldn’t a famous woman like Donna help a home cook out?